I'm no stranger to a stiff neck or back, and it was my ongoing frustration with them that led me to acupuncture a few years ago. That experience really opened my eyes and dispelled some longheld assumptions about alternative medicine. So when my practitioner added in cupping to my regular treatments, I didn't bat an eye. But what about fire cupping? When work was looking for a volunteer to try the treatment, I eagerly stepped forward, but it wasn't quite what I expected!
The cupping I was originally familiar with uses plastic cups that are rested on my back before a simple plunger is used to suck the air out and create a vacuum seal, locking them in place. Because I get it done at a chiropractor's office, the focus of the treatment is mostly on releasing tension built up in my problem areas—think of it as a kind of deep-tissue massage. But at Chicago Loop Acupuncture, Licensed Acupuncturist Elizabeth Kettner does cupping the more traditional way; she practices traditional Chinese medicine and that means fire cupping.
It's an ancient method of cupping that's been practiced for hundreds of years, and that means it works a bit differently than what I was used to. First off, traditional Chinese medicine uses the practice to realign and improve the flow of qi (or "chi" or "life force") by improving the body's blood flow.
The cups used in fire cupping therapy must be glass, not plastic. That's because what creates the suction isn't a pump or plunger, but a cotton ball soaked in alcohol that's lit on fire, held briefly inside the cup where the flames eat up the oxygen. This means that after the flame is quickly removed, the practitioner places the cup down on the back in one swift motion to create a vacuum seal.
The biggest difference? The swift motion that I mentioned means the practitioner needs to kind of slap the cup in place, which I wasn't prepared for! I let out a little yelp and a laugh because it surprised me so much. But don't worry, it didn't hurt; it's just startling if you're not ready for it.
As for the fire itself, it seems like a huge difference, but lying face down on the table, you can't even see the flame so it's pretty much a nonissue.
The biggest difference in terms of the experience is twofold. First, it means your practitioner is likely taking a more holistic approach, and may want to include acupuncture along your body's meridian lines as part of the treatment. Second, is that your practicioner may actually slide the cups around on your back instead of merely leaving them in place for a set amount of time. I was suprised by how pleasant I found this sensation. It's definitely more akin to the kneading of a deep-tissue massage, even if it sounds a little strange at first.
In the end, fire cupping isn't terribly different from other types of dry cupping and it's more than worth trying if you're already a fan. If you've never tried it, then I'd still say it's worth trying. Personally, I'm perfectly happy with my chiropractor so I won't be making the switch to fire cupping full time, but I'm definitely glad I checked it out.